- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

In Shakespeare’s tragedy “Titus Andronicus,” the play’s fictional hero — Rome’s greatest general, a nobleman and a patriot — suffers his first of many misfortunes when two of his sons are unjustly condemned to execution. Although he tearfully intercedes on their behalf, it is to no avail. A third son, Lucius, proposes to rescue his brothers by force, but the embittered Titus retorts:

Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive

That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?

Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey

But me and mine.

For Titus, who has spent much of his life away on distant battlefields, this is his first inkling of the savagery that lies at the very heart of Rome.

The cast of “Rubicon,” Tom Holland’s engrossing, bloody history of the fall of the Roman republic, would feel at home in a Shakespearean tragedy: These men are haughty, implacably fierce, grimly pragmatic. They battle tirelessly and fearlessly against their country’s foes. Against each other they connive with cold-eyed ambition. All for the cause of advancing Rome’s glory — and, of course, their own.

“Rubicon” kicks off with a compelling vignette of a pivotal moment in world history. It is January 10, 49 B.C., and Julius Caesar stands irresolute on the bank of a stream. Behind him, a legion of loyal soldiers wait for his signal. On their side of the stream is Gaul; on the far side lies Italy.

Caesar knows that if he, the governor of Gaul, leads his troops forward into Italy, it will be tantamount to a declaration of civil war on the Roman republic.

Yet he also knows that a state of emergency has been declared in the unstable city of Rome, where troops under the command of his rival, Gnaeus Pompey, patrol the streets — in violation of an ancient and sacredly-held rule forbidding Roman soldiers in arms from entering the capital.

“Caesar’s enemies, envious and fearful, had long been maneuvering to deprive him of his command. Now, at last, in the winter of 49, they had succeeded in backing him into a corner … ‘The die is cast.’ Only as a gambler, in a gambler’s fit of passion, was Caesar finally able to bring himself to order his legionaries to advance …

“By crossing [the Rubicon], Caesar did indeed engulf the world in war, but he also helped to bring about the ruin of Rome’s ancient freedoms, and the establishment, upon their wreckage, of a monarchy — events of primal significance for the history of the West.”

Mr. Holland then steps back from this crucial turning-point to consider the origins of the power-struggle in which Caesar was locked. In 88 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla had also marched on Rome, the first time in the republic’s 400-year history that anyone had dared to break the sacred prohibition.

Like Caesar after him, Sulla was embroiled in a feud with a rival, Gaius Marius; fresh from stamping out the Samnite rebellion in southern Italy, Sulla had gained the upper hand, but Marius maneuvered to sideline him politically. Sulla’s response, previously unthinkable, was to occupy the capital.

For the next several years, Sulla consolidated his power. With the infamous proscriptions of 82 B.C. he exacted a terrible retribution from Marius’ supporters, killing hundreds of them (and many others who did not have Marian sympathies) and confiscating their homes.

In 81 B.C. he was declared dictator, and proceeded to hack away at the powers of the tribunes, the elected representatives of the plebeian class. (His claim to be acting as a defender of the republic merits a scoff, though incredibly, he retired from public life of his own volition in 79 B.C.)

How could Rome, a society justly proud of its republican government and loath to offend its gods or its ancestors’ traditions, have come to this? As Mr. Holland vividly demonstrates, the first century B.C. was an era of sweeping change in the Mediterranean world.

In 140 B.C. Rome controlled Italy, Macedon, Spain and Carthage, exploiting the resources of these provinces but still uneasy about assuming the burden of empire; by A.D. 14, the year of the death of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, she ruled supreme over a vast swath stretching from the English Channel to Syria and Egypt.

The breakneck pace of this transition from Italian bully to global superpower was reflected by the physical appearance of Rome itself. Despite its world-capital status, Rome in the late first century B.C. was a cramped maze of narrow streets flanked by jerry-built apartment blocks, its centerpiece the still-modest Forum.

For the untold riches being stripped from foreign lands were not improving the lot of the Roman plebs, except in the form of food handouts and public festivals that politicians laid on to buy votes.

As the century wore on, the small class of the rich and influential became even richer and more influential. Ambitious men now cut their political teeth by seeking to conquer far-flung territories. If successful, they won extraordinary wealth, the loyalty of thousands of soldiers, and popular acclaim back in Rome.

It was under the strain of these competing colossi — possessed of unbelievable riches and commanding in effect personal armies — that Rome’s old system of checks and balances cracked and gave way.

Tom Holland has a Ph.D. from Oxford, but his second important qualification for writing popular history is the string of horror novels to his name (“Slave of My Thirst” and “Lord of the Dead” are two). His novelist’s eye picks out the human qualities of men we know from dry texts and cold marble.

So the 23-year-old Pompey, his “golden hair swept up in a quiff, his profile posed to look like Alexander’s … [leads] his army with the insouciance of a schoolboy handed a toy,” earning him the chilling nickname of “teenage butcher.”

Not surprisingly, given Mr. Holland’s horror credentials, his prose here often has a gothic flavor. The violent populist Clodius Pulcher, who had provoked a scandal in 62 B.C. by crashing the all-female rites of the Good Goddess (Bona Dea), meets a fitting end when he is murdered on the Appian Way: “There, by the side of a shrine to the Good Goddess, his corpse was left mangled and naked in the dust. It appeared that the goddess had at last had her revenge.”

This tremendously intelligent, vibrant, and witty book nonetheless left me with a twinge of disappointment, because the Rome Mr. Holland describes is an utterly joyless place. Even amid the upheaval of the republic’s last days, didn’t life — in its less monstrous forms — carry on? What else are we to make of Cicero’s gossipy letters, of Catullus’ playful, often lighthearted poetry?

In Mr. Holland’s account, when the Romans indulge themselves, they do so in a fever of self-disgust. And as for feeling tender toward their children, forget it, he says: “Hardness was a Roman ideal … It was instilled in [a citizen] from the moment of his birth … To the Romans, such a condition [as childhood] verged on the scandalous.”

Surely this is an exaggeration. The Rome of “Rubicon” is a wilderness of tigers, indeed.

RUBICON: THE LAST YEARS OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC

By Tom Holland

Doubleday, $27.50, 408 pages, illus.


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